Getting a diagnosis of cancer is one of the scariest, most stressful situations a person can experience. Reeling from the distressing news and overcome with emotion, virtually all new cancer patients find it hard to know exactly what actions should be taken next.
What works best: Following certain steps the first week after a cancer diagnosis greatly reduces stress and sets the course for a treatment plan that involves good decision-making, stronger support systems and perhaps even an improved chance of recovery. The steps below can be adapted to each patient’s personal situation, but they will help bring order to what can otherwise be a chaotic and tremendously challenging time…
Don’t keep your cancer a secret. Many patients keep their diagnosis to themselves at first. They may be in denial, don’t have all the facts yet and/or don’t want to worry loved ones. But it’s much better to reach out to key family members and close friends right away.
Meet with close family members and friends individually or in a group to share your diagnosis and let them know that you would appreciate their support. You can give them more information at a later time. You could also call your friends and family members to give them the news, but don’t communicate this information via text or social media.
The love and moral support as well as practical help with meals and rides that they can give will lessen your burden and anxiety much more than you realize.
See an oncologist within the first week after diagnosis. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety during the time between the cancer diagnosis and the initial visit with an oncologist. I have observed that patients who see their oncologists right away tend to be less anxious.
Oncologists should make it a point to see newly diagnosed patients quickly, certainly within a week of diagnosis and sometimes even sooner. You should try to see at least one oncologist who specializes in your specific cancer subtype, for example, a gynecologic oncologist—if not on the first appointment, then during a second opinion (see below).
At the appointment, you’ll get detailed information about the stage of your cancer…where it’s located in your body…what kind of prognosis to expect…what treatment is most appropriate…and how it will affect your life. Having this knowledge often helps to ease anxiety.
To prepare for your appointment…
Write down a list of questions.You no doubt will have questions for the oncologist based on the -initial conversation with your doctor. Be sure to write them down so that you don’t forget them during the stress of your appointment.
In preparation for your appointment, you may also want to research your condition online, but restrict your browsing to well-respected sites, such as Cancer.gov (National Cancer Institute)…Cancer.org (American Cancer Society)…and Cancer.net (American Society of Clinical Oncology).
Important: Be cautious about drawing conclusions from information on the web. Data on cancer can be complicated, and treatments can change over a short period of time. And prognoses and other stats are usually based on medians or averages. Use the information you glean from the web to add to your list of questions for the oncologist.
Bring one to three people with you to the first oncologist visit. Patients are often so emotionally overwhelmed by the diagnosis that their brains do not process all the important information that’s given to them during the appointment. Loved ones and/or friends can help listen, take notes and ask questions. They may also be able to tell the doctor about symptoms they’ve noticed that the patient isn’t even aware of. I advise bringing as many as three loved ones or close friends because they can help the patient in different ways and will ask different questions. With your doctor’s permission, you could also record the appointment (a recorder app on your smartphone is easy to use).
Consider a second opinion. Ideally, you should get a second opinion before treatment begins, and it should be from a doctor not affiliated with the first. You should not feel uncomfortable telling your doctor about your plans for a second opinion—in the case of cancer, it’s a very common practice and is even required by some insurance providers. Your doctor may facilitate the process of getting a second opinion with an unaffiliated doctor.
Having information you already received corroborated by a second opinion can be reassuring. And if the second opinion conflicts with the first, it’s better to know that sooner than later. Insurance will usually cover the cost of a second opinion, but check with your insurance company or your insurance case manager, if you have one.
Address your stress. After a cancer diagnosis, you may suffer from anxiety and/or lack of sleep. To take care of yourself, cut back on non-ssential tasks so that you can focus on activities that will help relieve stress, such as getting more exercise and eating well. Talk to your doctor about the best exercise and diet for your specific situation.
Be sure to tell your doctor about any anxiety or depression you’re feeling. He/she may refer you to a mental health provider, such as a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, and/or may prescribe a short-term medication, such as alprazolam (Xanax), to relieve anxiety and help you get some rest.
Also: Support groups can be beneficial. A good resource is Cancer.net (click on “Coping with Cancer,” then on “Finding Support and Information” and finally on “Support Groups”). But some patients feel that support groups make them overly consumed by their diagnosis and choose not to join one. That’s OK—the patient should decide the form of support that is best for him.
Learn about clinical trials. Even though most people assume that clinical trials enroll only patients who are in very advanced stages of their illnesses, that’s not true. There are clinical trials designed for different types and stages of cancer, but they may have very specific requirements. That’s why you should ask your doctor early on about clinical trials that may be right for your case.
Ask about support services. Keeping up with all the details of your illness can be overwhelming. A social worker can help with health insurance, financial aid, etc., free of charge. The medical center where your doctor practices may have social workers on staff or be able to refer you to one.